Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: 42 has thinking about our national pastime.
Bull Durham (1988)
Bull Durham is the greatest baseball movie because it isn’t really about baseball, even though writer-director Ron Shelton drew on his own experience as a minor-league player and captured the particulars of that world like no filmmaker before or since. Its true subject is passion. Religious and sexual metaphors intertwine to magnificent effect: Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy tells us at the outset that she belongs to the Church of Baseball (her house resembles a shrine), then relates her annual tradition of selecting one promising player on the Durham Bulls as her lover for the season. Ostensibly, what follows is a lightly comic romantic triangle involving Annie’s relationships with hotheaded young pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, in his breakout role) and his reluctant mentor, aging catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, in his defining performance). But what really binds these three indelible characters—and what determines which two end up together—is a stubborn, irrational ardor for the circumscribed realm they inhabit. And that’s something you can appreciate even if you have no idea what a ground rule double is.
“This is a simple game,” snarls the Bulls’ head coach (the late, lamented Trey Wilson) at one point. “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Shelton knows better, though, and complications are Bull Durham’s lifeblood, both on and off the field. Shrugging off your catcher’s signal means having him tell the opposing team’s batter what pitch you’re about to throw, out of spite. Racking up all the all-time minor-league record for home runs only underscores the fact that you never made it in “the show.” In many ways, the film achieves the fizzy delirium of classic comedies by the likes of Preston Sturges and Leo McCarey—it’s idiosyncratic, crazily detailed, endlessly quotable, and genuinely interested in even the most marginal members of its insular community. (There are no small parts here.) Underneath the effervescence, though, lurks a poignant recognition that all of this joy and heartbreak revolves around an activity that’s arguably trivial and unquestionably ephemeral. Accepting that paradox, even embracing it, is rather like accepting and embracing life itself.
Availability: Bull Durham is available for rental and purchase on DVD and Blu-ray from pretty much everybody.